Solving problems and the search for meaning is in our DNA. With that in mind, it’s not really difficult to understand why we find anagrams so appealing. They fit perfectly with what we’re able to do cognitively, while also being a way for us to express our creativity and wit.
They offer a great sense of accomplishment for the solver and in cases they offer a hidden meaning, they can be a really special treat for the mind. If you’re looking to learn more about anagrams, their history and how to structure, create and solve them properly, you’ve come to the right place!
The best way for us to get the gist of anagrams is if we’re guided by an example, but let’s take a quick glance at the basics first. Consider it an introduction to becoming an anagrammatist!
An anagram is defined as “a word, a phrase or a name formed by rearranging the letters of another.” The initial word or phrase from which one or more anagrams can be created is also known as the subject of the anagram. Let’s pick a word to use as a subject at random… Actually, “random” will do just fine!
In order for an anagram to be considered valid, they need to abide by this essential rule: all of the letters must be used and none can be added.
By rearranging the letters in the word “random” you can get the name of a former NBA player, famous for his defensive and rebounding skills, extravagant partying, periodical acting gigs and outrageous haircuts! If that wasn’t a big enough of a clue, we can also say that this word can be used to describe a “surveyor’s assistant who holds the leveling rod”.
If you leave out a couple of letters in order to make the pronunciation easier or in order to connect it in a more meaningful way to the subject - you’re dealing with something that’s called an “imperfect anagram”. Some examples of imperfect anagrams that can be made from our subject word are “manor”, “nomad”, and “adorn”.
Once you’ve considered all of the rules we’ve mentioned above, you might ask, “Is anagram the same as permutation?” And although it’s true that permutation plays a role in creating anagrams, one clause makes a crucial difference - anagrams have to be real words.
That doesn’t mean they have to make a whole lot of sense! The best example would be the solution to the “meta anagram”. It seems as though the answer to the question, “What is the anagram of the word anagram?” deserves a lot more poetic justice than “nag a ram”. The words are real, the phrase makes sense, but it’s not something that bears a great deal of meaning. Unless you’ve encountered a ram on the edge of a cliff and you’re looking for things you should never ever do!
The whole point of anagrams is the search for meaning, something that we as humans are hard-wired to do on our own. Solving anagrams comes very naturally to us because it fits well with our cognitive capabilities. Some find this task easier than others which is why psychologists use them as a tool for assessing either intelligence or implicit memory.
The earliest records of anagrams date back to the Ancient Greeks. Their original name was “Themuru” which means “changing” and the goal was to rearrange the letters in people’s names in order to unveil mystical information about them and their future.
In the middle ages, anagrams were popularly applied to religious texts. One of the most famous examples of anagrams from this period comes from the Gospel of John and the interaction between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Pilate jestingly asked Jesus “Quid est veritas?” or “What is truth?”. Using the Latin version of the question, the letters can be rearranged to say “Est vir qui adest“ - “It is the man who is here”. The idea is that Jesus never replied because the answer was contained in the question.
There are also records of anagrams being used by famous scientists in order to protect their discoveries. Galileo famously used anagrams in his correspondence with Kepler to hide the message about the shape of Saturn and the phases of Venus.
In the 20th century, surrealists were very keen on using anagrams to jest and have fun. A good example is a well-known jibe made by André Breton to ridicule Salvador Dali. He started calling him Avida Dollars, an anagram he created from his name to convey that Dali had lost his way due to commercialism. Unica Zürn, who was closely connected to the surrealist movement, is famous for writing a book of anagram poetry.
Today, anagrams (aka crossword solver) are mostly reserved for fun, games, and a form of mental exercise. However, we have one particular advantage over all previous generations. Using elegant anagram-generating software we can rely on technology to help us create and solve mindbending puzzles with ease!
Sometimes anagrams and crossword solver are used as major plot devices in stories with the goal of providing a major reveal to the audience. If you’re a fan of crime thrillers, you simply had to have come upon a scene where the murderer is revealed by a solving of an anagram. The same technique was used in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in order to reveal the secret identity of Tom Marvolo Riddle.
Writers also tend to use anagrams as easter eggs when naming books or episodes and even characters either to convey hidden meaning or as a tribute. Matt Groening, creator of the TV institution known as “The Simpsons” coined the name of Bart Simpson by using an anagram of the word “brat”.
Musicians and song artists are also known to use anagrams in their work. Jim Morrison used an anagram of his name “Mr. Mojo Risin’” for the song LA Woman. The English singer-songwriter Imogen Heap named one of her albums using the same technique - “I, Megaphone”.
In 1972, the famous Monty Python comedy group used anagrams as a theme for one of their hilarious sketches. In the scene, a host of made-up show interviews a guest who only speaks in anagrams. The sketch is marvelously played out but it is barely comprehensible until you take a closer look at the transcript.
This little crash course should be a good stepping stone that inspires you to explore the wonderful world of anagrams further. By now, you should have a good idea of what anagrams are, how to solve them or even create your own.
They are a great way to have fun while also preserving cognitive health. On the road to mental fitness, we fully encourage you to have as much fun and try out all kinds of things with anagrams. Just never try to nag a ram.